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Thursday, July 25, 2019

Byzantium and the Crusades Part III: Detente and Defeat

It is easy to conceive of the crusades as a conflict between Latin Christian West and the Muslim Middle East, forgetting that between these two geographic/
religious groupings was an Orthodox Christian Empire -- what we have come to call the Byzantine Empire. Yet it was the latter which  both triggered the crusades and became a victim of them. Today I continue my four-part series on the complex role played by Byzantium in the era of the crusades by looking at the reign of Manuel I Comnenus and the Third Crusade. 

Manuel I and his second wife, Maria of Antioch

Manuel I Comnenus reigned from Constantinople for nearly 40 years from 1143 to 1180 and has gone down in Byzantine history as a great monarch. During his reign, the Byzantine Empire continued to flourish economically and artistically, while also maintaining its political position despite some setbacks and defeats.

At his ascension, Manuel inherited the traditional suspicion of the crusaders and their motives from his predecessors. His attitude was reinforced by the indiscipline and reprehensible behavior of some German elements during the Second Crusade. The Byzantines responded with open hostility that escalated into armed clashes -- right up to the gates of Constantinople itself. Yet eventually Conrad III and, after his arrival, Louis VII of France were able to reason with Manual. Their differences were settled, and Manuel concluded an alliance with Conrad III aimed at the Normans of Sicily.

Conrad III and Louis VII arrive at Constantinople during the Second Crusade

Relations between Constantinople and the Latin West suffered a renewed setback, however, when Reynald de Châtillon invaded Cyprus and engaged in an orgy of savagery including the mutilation of prisoners, extortion, rape, pillage, and destruction. Although Châtillon was condemned by the Latin Church and the King of Jerusalem, his behavior only reinforced existing Byzantine prejudices against the Latin Christians as “barbarians.” Manuel responded by collecting a large army and marching on Antioch. Châtillon had no allies. The King of Jerusalem explicitly encouraged Manuel to teach Châtillon a lesson. Châtillon chose submission and met Manuel barefoot and bareheaded with a noose around his neck to symbolize his submission to the Byzantine Emperor.

This event appears to have been a turning point in Manuel’s policies toward the crusader states. At the latest from this time forward, Manuel adopted “crusader rhetoric” in his communications with the West and in official statements. That is, rather than retaining a disdainful distance from the notion of crusading, Manuel embraced the cause as worthy. While this may reflect acknowledgment that the crusades had done some good by restoring most of the Holy Land to Christian control, it was probably also an attempt to regain the initiative for Constantinople.  

King Amalric of Jerusalem and his Byzantine Queen, Maria Comnena
Manuel's new policies included a series of marriage alliances with key crusader dynasties. Two of his nieces married successive Kings of Jerusalem, Theodora married Baldwin III and Maria married Amalric I. His son was married to the daughter of King Louis VII of France. His daughter married a son of the powerful North Italian family of Montferrat. Most important, following the death of his empress, Manuel himself married Maria, the daughter of the Prince of Antioch. Manual’s marriage offensive was most likely a conscious attempt to civilize and subtly influence policy in Western courts, particularly the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Manuel's emphasis on cultural influence is further evidenced by the substantial resources he devoted to the restoration of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and contributions to the decoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Particularly in the reign of Amalric I, art historians detect increased Byzantine influence on architecture, illumination and other art forms.

Mosaic Tiles at the Church of the Nativity
More obvious and more direct was a willingness on the part of Manual to ransom prominent crusader lords languishing in Muslim captivity. Ransoming prominent prisoners naturally created ties of gratitude, while also serving as magnificent public relations gestures that earned respect and admiration from the public at large. Thus Manuel ransomed even his arch-enemy Reynald de Châtillon, as well as Bohemond III of Antioch and, in one of the more dramatic and significant actions, paid a king’s ransom (literally) for Baldwin d’Ibelin, the Baron of Ramla and Mirabel. (For more on the significance of this event see:

The most important feature of Manuel’s co-operative policies with the crusader states, however, were the series of joint military operations initiated during the later years of his reign. These included action against Nur ad-Din in 1158-59 and an invasion of Egypt in 1167-68.

The reward for his change in tone and substance was the acknowledgment of Byzantine suzerainty over all the crusader states during a state visit by King Amalric (and his Byzantine Queen Maria Comnena) to Constantinople in 1171. Yet in this moment of triumph over the “barbarians” Manuel also made a fatal miscalculation. In 1171, apparently in response to growing popular discontent over Venetian privileges and increasing wealth, Manuel ordered the simultaneous arrest of all the Venetians resident in his Empire and the confiscation of their property. 

The move reflected Byzantine hubris: the confidence that the Venetians would never be able to take revenge for this arbitrary act. Certainly, the initial attempt by the Venetians to send a fleet to free their captives met with defeat. It would take 33 years before the Venetians would have their revenge, but when it came it would surpass the worst nightmares of the Byzantines.

Meanwhile, Manuel died in 1180 and was initially succeed by his eleven-year-old son Alexios. The government fell to his widow, Maria of Antioch. However, she was not popular, and her policies, which favored the other Italians, who had flooded to fill the vacuum left by the expulsion of the Venetians, earned her even more hostility. The anti-Western faction in Constantinople found an ally in the ambitious uncle of the late Manuel I. In April 1182, Andronikos entered Constantinople and the mob was set loose on the Latin population. According to Charles M. Brand in his history Byzantium Confronts the West, 1180-1204, (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1968): 
The populace turned on the merchants, their families, and the Catholic monks and clerics who lived in the crowded quarters along the Golden Horn…When the mobs attacked, no attempt at defense was made. The crowds raced through the streets seeking Latins. The choicest victims were the helpless: women and children, the aged and the sick, priests and monks. They were killed in streets and houses, dragged from hiding places and slaughtered. Dwellings and churches full of refugees were burned, and at the Hospital of the Knights of St. John, the sick were murdered in their beds.  The clergy were the particular objects of the crowd’s hatred. The head of the pope’s emissary, Cardinal John, was cut off and dragged through the streets on the tail of a dog….The Orthodox clergy took the lead in searching out concealed Latins to deliver to the killers.

Maria of Antioch was deposed and, for a brief period, Andronikos ruled with Manuel’s son Alexios II. During this period, Alexios was forced by Andronikos to sign his mother’s execution order. In Oct. 1183, Alexios was strangled on the orders of Andronikos, who assumed sole power. Just two years later, in Sept. 1185, Andronikos was himself deposed and tortured to death by a mob in Constantinople.

His successor, Isaac II Angelos, was in a precarious situation that precluded the pursuit of a clear policy. Already in 1187, he faced a rebellion from one of his most successful generals, Alexios Branas, and only months later was taken by surprise by the devastating Christian defeat at Hattin and the subsequent fall of Jerusalem. Significantly, however, his brother was at Saladin’s court at this time and Isaac promptly started negotiations with the Sultan. Historian Michael Angold notes:
This represented a clear break with Comnenian policies. There were many in the Byzantine administration…who were critical…. [However,] once it became clear that reviving Manuel Comnenus’s policy of entente with the crusader states was impractical — largely because of the loss of Cyprus — an understanding with Saladin was the most effective way of protecting Byzantine interests in Anatolia, where Saladin could bring his influence to bear on the Seljuqs of Rum. [Angold, 297.]

From cooperation with Saladin to opposition to the Third Crusade was a small step. Isaac initially wanted to prevent the German crusaders under the leadership of Frederick Barbarossa from passing through his territories altogether. He appears to have reverted to the earlier pattern of assuming the “real” reason for the crusade was to overthrow him and seize Constantinople rather than restore Christian control of the Holy Land.

Frederick Barbarossa
Isaac’s anti-crusader policy met with serious opposition within his own government, and when Isaac proved incapable of countering Barbarossa’s superior military capabilities, Isaac was forced to modify his policies. Yet the combination of his treaty with Saladin and his initial attempts to prevent the passage of the German crusaders fueled Latin suspicions of the Byzantines. Increasingly the “Greeks” were seen as duplicitous, treacherous, and cowardly. Fatally, Western sentiment turned decisively against Byzantium at a time with the Empire lacked competent, popular and entrenched leadership.

Next week I will conclude this four-part series with a look at the Fourth Crusade and its aftermath.

Sources and recommended reading:

Angold, Michael, “The Fall of Jerusalem (1187) as Viewed from Constantinople,” in The Crusader World, ed. Adrian Boas (London: Routledge, 2016), 289-309.

Chrissis, Nicolaos, “Byzantine Crusaders: Holy War and Crusade Rhetoric in Byzantine Contacts with the West (1095-1341),” in The Crusader World, ed. Adrian Boas (London: Routledge, 2016), 259-277.

Papayianni, Aphrodite, "Memory and Ideology: The Image of the Crusades in Byzantine Historiography, Eleventh - Thirteenth Centuries," in The Crusader World, ed. Adrian Boas (London: Routledge, 2016), 278-288.

Wright, Chris, "On the Margins of Christendom: The Impact of the Crusades on Byzantium," in ed. Conor Kostick (London: Routledge, 2011), 55-82.

Balian d'Ibelin married a Byzantine princess and their sons retained an exceptional appreciation of Byzantium's role in the Eastern Mediterranean.

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick and the barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at:

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